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What Does it Mean to Obey?

  • Nicole Mahaney Whitacre Contributing Writer
  • Published Sep 14, 2006
What Does it Mean to Obey?

Has your mom ever told you to do something that was the last thing in the world you wanted to do? My sister Janelle can relate. It happened when she was in the ninth grade.

She was hanging out with some friends. They had all recently returned from the youth group summer mission trip the week before. As they talked, some of the kids began to speak critically about a pastor in the church. The most outspoken was a guy named Mike.

When Janelle told Mom about Mike’s slander, Mom insisted that she go back and ask him to apologize to the group for his comments. Listening to slander, Mom said, was by God’s standard the same as doing it yourself. Besides, slander is like poison in a church.

Janelle really didn’t want to confront Mike, but Mom wasn’t asking her. She was telling her. So Janelle called him.

Mike took it okay. He didn’t see what the big deal was, but he said he was wrong, and he was sorry. The whole thing was over in less than five minutes. Janelle tried not to worry about what he thought of her now. What mattered was that she had obeyed her parents.

Ephesians 6:1-2 backed Mom up in this situation. It says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother.’”

Honor and obedience are inseparable. In fact, you honor your mom by obeying her. And as much as you might want to find a loophole, there is none here in Ephesians 6:1-2. Obey your parents. In the Lord. This is right. When we were little, my parents taught us to obey “immediately, completely, and willingly.” This about sums it up.

But obedience isn’t measured by mere outward compliance with the rules. Do you remember the Pharisees—those uppity guys in the Bible who thought they were so holy because technically they kept the law? Well, Jesus exposed them for the hypocrites they really were. He rebuked them: “For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matt. 23:25). Imagine drinking out of a cup that had never been cleaned on the inside. Yuk! Worse, Jesus compared them to whitewashed tombs—attractive on the outside but with a decaying body hidden inside.

These illustrations were Jesus’ way of telling the Pharisees that their outward conformity didn’t cut it. That was simply a show. Their superficial actions weren’t true obedience because true obedience comes from the heart. Likewise, we’re only modern Pharisees if we do all the right things, but our hearts are not in it. That’s not to say that we wait until we feel like it to obey. But simply doing what we are told is not enough. Genuine obedience isn’t measured by politeness to elders, a facade of compliance, or statements about our love for God. True obedience starts in the heart.

To develop a heart of obedience, we must first understand that God has put our parents in charge. Parental authority isn’t a conspiracy of society to oppress children everywhere. It isn’t an outdated, repressive, backward idea. And it isn’t a scheme of our parents just to keep us under their thumbs. In fact, our parents haven’t even been given an option. They’ve been ordered by God to lovingly act on His behalf to guide us in His ways.

So when we obey our parents, we are obeying God. And when we disobey our parents (unless they ask us to sin), we are disobeying God. It’s that simple. There is a direct link between our attitude toward our parents’ authority and our attitude toward God’s authority. Obedience to our parents isn’t an “us versus them” issue. It’s an “us versus God” issue. That raises the stakes considerably, to say the least. Not only does our disobedience take on a whole new level of seriousness, but our obedience becomes that much more important. It not only pleases our parents, but it is pleasing to God Himself. Obedience is all about God.

When we take this in—that God has set up Mom’s authority—it also gives us faith for her wisdom. (In keeping with our mother-daughter theme, we will focus on obedience to Mom in this chapter. However, we trust it goes without saying that this command applies with Dad as well.) You see, as daughters, we often think we’re the ones with all the smarts and that Mom doesn’t really know what she’s doing. This common malady is called pride. Paul Tripp makes this observation:

Most teenagers simply don’t have a hunger for wisdom. In fact, most think they are much wiser than they actually are, and they mistakenly believe that their parents have little practical insight to offer. They tend to think that their parents “don’t really understand” or are “pretty much out of it.” Yet most teenagers sorely lack wisdom and desperately need loving, biblical, and faithfully dispensed correction.1

Let’s face the facts. We young women are seriously lacking in the wisdom department. This should cause us to be humble. It should also transform our perspective of our mother’s authority. She probably knows a lot more than we think she does. In fact, she’s been endowed with wisdom from God to lead us in His ways. So we should get excited about obedience! Obedience is thrilling because through our mom we can get wisdom and guidance from God. Pretty radical stuff, this obedience, isn’t it?

And faith for Mom’s authority affects our response when we don’t agree with her decisions or even if she makes a mistake. Of course, we are never to obey her if she tells us to sin. (If you and your parents are not in agreement as to whether their counsel is biblical or wise, we encourage you to seek help from a pastor together.) However, most often it’s that we don’t want to do something she requires, or we want to do something she forbids. We tend to think Mom is ruining our life, or at least our chances for fun by withholding her permission. Or we worry that obeying her will result in an unfavorable outcome for us.

In Janelle’s case, she worried that in confronting Mike she would lose his friendship and approval. But faith for Mom’s wisdom and authority made all the difference for Janelle. And faith for your mom’s authority can make that difference for you too. Because you know that God has established your parents’ authority, you can have every confidence that He will honor your obedience and cause all things to work for your good.  “For those who love God all things work together for good”(Rom. 8:28).

In fact, obedience is all about good stuff. God didn’t establish our mom’s authority to make our lives miserable. He put her in charge so we could receive the joy, peace, protection, and happiness that come from walking in God’s ways and doing His will. Obedience keeps us within what Tedd Tripp calls the “circle of great blessing.”2 There is security in obedience because we know that God’s ways are perfectly safe. There is joy and peace because we know that He Himself is guiding us, and we are happy because we are pleasing God.

These blessings are ours if we choose to live a life of obedience. In Deuteronomy 28, after giving many commands to the Israelites, God takes fourteen verses to lay out the immense blessings of obedience. Here is a sampling:

And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today . . . all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you. . . . Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. . . . Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. . . . The LORD will command the blessing on you . . . in all that you undertake. . . . And the LORD will make you abound in prosperity. . . . The LORD will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. . . . And the LORD will make you the head and not the tail, and you shall only go up and not down, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, being careful to do them. . . . (Deut. 28:1-14)

Wow! God’s blessings for obedience are nothing short of spectacular!

Yet each time we choose to disobey, we are essentially tossing these blessings in the trash can. “No thanks,” we say. “I would rather have my own way than experience the goodness of God.” By rejecting God’s blessings, we may be thinking that independence is more fun or that true freedom is doing what we want to do. But those ideas are only illusions. Pastor and author John Piper vividly illustrates this point when he writes:

There are sensations of unbounded independence that are not true freedom because they deny truth and are destined for calamity. For example, two women may jump from an airplane and experience the thrilling freedom of free-falling. But there is a difference: one is encumbered by a parachute on her back and the other is free from this burden. Which person is most free? The one without the parachute feels free—even freer, since she does not feel the constraints of the parachute straps. But she is not truly free. She is in bondage to the force of gravity and to the deception that all is well because she feels unencumbered. This false sense of freedom is in fact bondage to calamity which is sure to happen after a fleeting moment of pleasure.3

Disobedience to authority isn’t true freedom but rather a dangerous choice with inevitable consequences. After describing the blessings of obedience in Deuteronomy 28:1-14, God spells out the consequences for His people if they do not obey His commands (vv. 15-68). If the many blessings did not convince you that obedience is a good idea, I would encourage you to read the rest of Deuteronomy 28. The alternative is terrible.

We all deserve these consequences, for who of us hasn’t disobeyed? Yet once again we see the marvelous mercy of God: His Son took all the punishment for our disobedience. What’s more, by His Spirit, we can now choose to obey: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

Janelle didn’t see at first how obeying Mom and confronting Mike would result in blessing. But she found out recently. You see, Mike and Janelle were married on June 1 of 2003.

Mike still remembers Janelle’s phone call that day, and now he is so grateful that she pointed out his sin. Today he is a young man with a passion for God and a love for his local church. In fact, he serves as a pastoral intern. Janelle’s submission to parental authority and her courage to confront made him realize that she was the kind of woman he wanted to marry (not to mention that he thought she was very pretty!).

Now this doesn’t mean that the next time you confront a guy, he’s the one you’re going to marry. But I guarantee that God’s blessings will be no less lavish on your life when you choose to obey your mom.

1. Paul David Tripp, Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2001), 76.
 2. Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart (Wapwallopen, Pa.: Shepherd Press, 1995), 135.
 3. John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1991), 47.

This column is part of an ongoing series on Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood. Last month's installment:   A Mother's Discipline Should Point Daughters to God's Truth.

Carolyn Mahaney is a wife, mother, homemaker, and the author of Feminine Appeal: Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother, and Girl Talk: Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood. During her more than 30 years as a pastor’s wife, Carolyn has spoken to women in many churches and conferences, including those of Sovereign Grace Ministries, which her husband, C.J., leads. C.J. and Carolyn have three married daughters and one twelve-year-old son, Chad.

Nicole Mahaney Whitacre is the oldest daughter of C.J. and Carolyn Mahaney, as well as a wife, mother, and homemaker. She assisted her mother with Feminine Appeal, and is the co-author of Girl Talk. Nicole and her husband, Steve, have one son, Jack.

Carolyn and her three daughters keep a 
weblog for women in all seasons of life, also entitled "Girl Talk."

This column was adapted for Crosswalk from Girl Talk: Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood (Crossway 2005) by Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Mahaney Whitacre © 2005 (Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187,